AsIAm – One of Ireland’s most successful social enterprises

AsIAm is Ireland’s National Austitic Charity. It’s actually an acronym that stands for Ausitic Spectrum Information Advice and Meeting point. It advocates for it’s community by supporting Autistic people and their families and by advocating for their community in the media and with businesses, employers and local communities. Now 8 years old, AsIAm is one of the biggest success stories to come out of the Social Entrepreneurs Ireland. Now with a team of 23, 50% of whom are neurodiverse the charity has gone from strength to strength. We caught up with CEO Adam Harris to find out more about the organisation:

1. How did AsIam begin?

I began to think about creating my own business when I was around 16. I was always interested in activism and as someone who had autism and experienced isolation and being misunderstood I knew that there was a community of people that needed someone to advocate for them. Luckily, I had a very positive experience in school and that gave me a lot of confidence that I can achieve what I set out to do. However, how the autistic community was being talked about in the media wasn’t a true reflection of what autistic people can achieve. I then started blogging about some of the challenges that weren’t what the media spoke about and my blog got very popular, so I started getting press coverage. Over a couple of years the blog turned into a business, which I officially launched in 2014. I got a team together and created a charity that would advocate and  educate society. I never expected to be a social entrepreneur, but I thought that if I don’t do it, who will? 

2. Looking back, would there be anything you would change about how you began?

Heinstight is a great thing. One of the things I’ve learnt is, that I want to change everything overnight, but  that change is hard, I’ve learnt that it takes time to change and it’s important to have perspective.

3. What would be two or three pieces of advice you would give anyone starting a social enterprise?

A. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. When your intentions are good you’d be amazed how many experienced people want to help.

B. There’s no replacement for hard work and grass roots. It will inform your organisation and how you go about advocating for your community.

C. Be aware of Imposter Syndrome – if no one else is doing it, do it. Also don’t be afraid to try crazy things, it’s a about trial and error. For example, one of our most successful fundraisers is a leg wax fundraiser a few years ago. It got huge attention.

4. Can you give a little more detail on some of the programmes and initiatives that you launched recently?

A. AsIAm is a bridge between empowering Autistic people and improving society acceptance of Autistic people. We have a number of plans to support the community in this area. This includes case work, ID cards, and on the society side we have best in class training for schools, colleges, and employers. In addition, we recently launched out adult and employment support service which support adults in gaining employment and work experience through community based employment.

B. The supports we offer Autisic people saw a 280% increase during the pandemic. Thoughout this difficult time we grew the community support team we have. We also launched our Bridge Forward programme. Which supports 15 communities so that Autistic people can re-enter society since restrictions were eased. Our training team keep innovating and we’ll have further announcements around that in  the next few weeks. We aso just launched our partnership with Pennies, Autism friendly Programme. They’ll train all staff in autism friendly practises. We also launched Autism Friendly HEI, which has helpful resources for Autistic people entering or who are currently in college

5. Being a charity you have to raise funds through the public. What were some of the best fundraising campaigns that AsIam have run?

A. 85% of our funding comes from grants, philanthropy or support provided by the state. This covers things like training, resources and community development. Prior to covid we didn’t do a lot of fundraising. However, now we see that there is more we can do in this area

B. During Covid we did a campaign around Fly For Autism. It was a paper airplane competition where everyone got to launch their paper airplanes and see how far it can fly. We also have an appeal around World Autism Month, where we’re very visible in the media. We have a 5K run in county wicklow, a cycling competition and then we have our partnership with places like SuperValu where we collect donations from the public and pack people’s shopping for them.

C. We’re about to launch our Christmas appeal campaign – but you’ll have to stay tuned for that.

6. You also raise funds through organisations such as Social Entrepreneurs Ireland (SEI), ReThink Ireland and The Ireland Funds. How have these organisations helped you with your mission?

They’ve all been fantastic. SEI were the first to support our vision and they have been relentless in their support of not just us, but of all social enterprises in Ireland. However, their advice is more valuable than money. The Ireland Funds are another great support of ours, many of our programmes wouldn’t have been possible without their support. Community Foundation of Ireland support have really helped us thrive and more recently and Late Late Toy Show Appeal funds have helped us launch our Bridge Forward programme.

7. Would you have any tips for applying for funding from these types of organisations?

A. There is no simple solution. Patience is the key. You have to demonstrate the impact your social enterprise is have and show the real-world results their support can give you and your cause.

B. The SEI has really good programmes now for people wanting to open their own social enterprise. They can can provide really important credibility, support and create a community of entrepreneurs that you can lean on as you begin your journey of social entrepreneurship.

C. Governance essential. The public demands it in a social enterprise. There have been a lot of scandals in this area recently so if you don’t have good governance this will undermine your mission and create distrust amongst your supportors.

8. How did the pandemic affect your services? Were there any positives that you have taken from this period?

There has been a huge increase in demand for our services. As mentioned above enquiries from our community increased over 280% in this period. It was an unprecedented challenge. It was obvious early on autistic people were not considered when decisions were being made for them. As a team we spent a huge amount of time advocating for our community. I think the pandemic has shown the barriers that different groups show, how can we innovate – and include people based in rural Ireland or people who are  home-bound can be in the workforce or education. So we doubled down on community. We also had to support employees and getting funding through this period, which was a challenge in itself

9. You recently published research in conjunction with Irishjobs.ie, where you researched employers and people on the autsitic spectrum about employment. What were some of the key findings from this research? How have you gone about dispelling some of the starker statistics since publishing? 

We were delighted to publish the Autism In The Workplace report with our friends in Irish Jobs. It highlighted that there is a double empathy problem when hiring Autistic talent. Autistic adults aren’t aware of openness so some employers; but on the flip side of that employers don’t know where to start. There are still a lot of stigma or misconceptions on both side. We hope that we will try to bridge the gap with the support of Irishjobs. So that more Autistic adults can enter the workforce and employers can access hidden pipeline of talent. We have been running webinars around this team and we will be launching a pledge for employers to take in the coming weeks.

10. Are there any other organisations involved in Diversity and Inclusion in Ireland that you are a fan of? 

We have great relationships with local communities, we’ve also incorporated other social enterprises in this area with Spark Ability and our Bridge Forward Programme and PrepareMe that we will be announcing a partnership with in the near future. We are also huge fans of Specialisterne Ireland. We were both founded in the same year and work closely together. We hope to work more closely together in the near future too.

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